Window on the World Cup

This is the first time I’ve not been in Britain during a World Cup. The point would be moot were I virtually anywhere else in the world, be it Europe, Africa or even Latin America. But I’m in the United States, where the following for football/soccer (delete as inappropriate) is cult at best. The US team did well in their World Cup qualifiers and they’ve started the tournament with a big win over bogey team Ghana (if you’re not sure what I’m taking about at this point, it’s probably not worth going on…) so they’ll be some bandwagoning, but, unlike most nations, it will be driven more by patriotism than love of the game. But I’m starting to realise that television makes a World Cup.

ESPN replaces match coverage with cooking shows!

ESPN: football in the wrong place!

You might wonder what the difference is since a game’s content doesn’t change depending on where you watch it. It’s not some animated blockbuster that has local celebrities dubbing the characters’ voices. Except it sort of is. I don’t need commentary and coverage by my countrymen any more than I need an Englishman coaching the national team (because that always works out so well for us) but I need pundits who can talk about the game with some degree of sophistication. That’s not to say that British TV guarantees this. ITV’s nickname-driven football bloke-in always fell short yet the statistic-based monotone of Spanish language network Univision’s World Cup commentary hits the spot. So let’s call a spade a spade, or let’s just call ESPN shit!

In some ways, ESPN’s World Cup coverage feels very familiar. Commentator Ian Darke is English and previously worked for Sky Sports, and has that voice that only British football pundits and inflammatory talk radio DJs have the rights to. He’s backed up by a renowned ex-Premier League player, Liverpool’s Steve McManaman, whose years in the sport somehow haven’t resulted in the ability to read a match. Just like ITV, the coverage is heavily commercialised and avowedly lowest common denominator, with a line in metaphor that makes the poetry written by contestants on The Bachelorette seem avant-garde. But if this were all that was wrong, it wouldn’t be any more disappointing than being forced to watch football in the company of Adrian Chiles, Britain’s highest-paid pumpkin.

But it is much worse. The commentary is idiot-friendly to the point of baby-talk. During USA vs. Ghana, pundits referred to the US closing the game down as ‘parking the bus’ so many times, I actually thought the handbrake on the team coach was off. Conversely, the self-evident rules of the game are discussed with a depth and ambiguity that wouldn’t look out of place in The Wire. Behind this I’m sure there’s some nobly futile effort to broaden the appeal of football to US sports fans, but it insults our intelligences from ear to ear. The studio segments are so short they’re more like game shows where pundits have to come up with a repeatable three-syllable analogy before the clock runs out. Reports from the city have been replaced by pseudo-Steinbeckian monologues.

The other culture-shock (although does it count if it’s just one country holding out?) is that ESPN’s coverage of the World Cup doesn’t include all the tournament’s games and events. The opening ceremony featuring a kidnapped Jennifer Lopez was shunned in favour of the US Open and though I’m not one for race-baiting, it does tend to be the games featuring the whiter parts of the world that are covered. In cultures where football is taken seriously, TV channels broadcast a continuous World Cup flow but ESPN’s coverage is sandwiched in-between Nascar races and miscellaneous college sports tournaments. It’s jarring not to have every broadcaster on TV crowbarring the World Cup into every studio segment. Never have I longed more for a bloated pre-match show.

Univision: football coverage you can count by!

Univision: football coverage you can count by!

Hispanic TV networks have been my sanctuary. I may only understand a quarter of what’s said but the pundits’ innate football knowledge and enthusiasm is palpable. All possible scenarios within the match have their own catchphrases, bellowed in one continuous breath by the commentator. Seemingly every show on Univision, regardless of genre, cuts away to live coverage in Brazil like a transmission test card and it’s not uncommon to see news being presented in football strips. It’s not a home away from home; it’s an extended stay with a mad moustached uncle. I never thought there was anything worse than ITV Football, but there is and it’s ITV Football for beginners. I’m just grateful there’s enough Latinos in the US to give me an alternative.

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